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Richard Carapaz, Thibaut Pinot headline classy field at the Étoile de Bessèges

French stage racing season kicks off at the five-day event where Ineos Grenadiers, EF Education and Groupama-FDJ bring strong teams.

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The road back to the Tour de France kicks off Wednesday with the traditional French stage-race opener at the romantically named Étoile de Bessèges (Star of Bessèges).

A star-studded lineup includes the likes of Richard Carapaz and Thibaut Pinot, who are among the riders racing for nine WorldTour teams at the event blowing out the cobwebs for 2022.

The five-day race is contested over the undulating roads of the Gard region in the south of the country, just to the north-west of the Roman city of Nîmes, and is sure to deliver some telling, early-season sparks.

Like last year, when a series of COVID-enforced race cancelations triggered a last-minute scramble for places on the Bessèges start list, the line-up is impressively strong.

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Although defending champion Tim Wellens and his Lotto-Soudal team aren’t appearing, Ineos Grenadiers returns with a stellar cast headed up by last season’s double stage-winner Filippo Ganna, 2021 GC runner-up Michał Kwiatkowski, and Olympic road race champion Carapaz.

Backed by Eddie Dunbar, Ben Tulett, neo-pro Kim Heiduk, and Laurens De Plus, who’s making his first competitive appearance since last April as a result of a viral infection, Ineos should start as favorites for overall victory.

The week should be an emotional one as Ineos as the team lines up for its first major European stage race since the horrific crash involving team captain Egan Bernal last week in Colombia.

Bernal, who raced last year’s edition ahead of his dramatic overall victory at the 2021 Giro d’Italia, is recovering in a Colombian hospital.

The main challengers to the British squad this week should come from the other WorldTeams, notably Ag2r-Citroën, Trek-Segafredo, UAE Emirates, Groupama-FDJ, and EF Education-Easy Post. Total Énergies and Uno-X look the most likely ProTeams to spring a surprise.

EF Education starts with a line-up that looks as powerful as Ineos’s.

Classics specialist Alberto Bettiol and new signing Owain Doull were both top 10 in the race-ending Alès time trial last year that’s repeated this time around. With dynamic Danish duo Magnus Cort and Michael Valgren also in their ranks, the American squad should be in the frame every day and right in the GC battle.

Seventh last year and the kind of punchy rider who should thrive on Bessèges’s rolling terrain, Greg Van Avermaet leads Ag2r-Citroën, with all-rounder Lilian Calmejane and climber Clément Champoussin another pair to watch.

Trek-Segafredo gives the returning Tony Gallopin an early opportunity to shine in their colors alongside Bauke Mollema and sprinter Mads Pedersen, who was runner-up at the GP Marseillaise last Sunday. UAE also features one of its major signings in German sprinter Pascal Ackermann.

Determined to turn around their fortunes after a disappointing 2021 season, Groupama-FDJ will line up behind their totemic leader Pinot, who’s backed by a number of his regular GC domestiques, including indefatigable rouleur Bruno Armirail and climber Sébastien Reichenbach.

Cofidis, meanwhile, will be pinning their hopes on newly arrived sprinter Bryan Coquard and climber Jesús Herrada.

TotalÉnergies decided against giving their new leader Peter Sagan his debut at Bessèges, holding the Slovak back for another fortnight until the Tour des Alpes Maritimes and opting instead for Edvald Boasson Hagen and Pierre Latour to head their attack.

Norway’s Uno-X, which has gained a reputation for an aggressive approach to racing, could be the wild cards. The team lines up with sprinter Kristoffer Halvorsen and last year’s Tour de l’Avenir winner Tobias Johannessen as their leaders.

Blowing out the cobwebs with a mixed route

Filippo Ganna won two stages here last year. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

The race commences with a stage based in the town of Bellegarde, to the south of Nîmes, which hosted last year’s opener won by Christophe Laporte, ahead of Nacer Bouhanni and Trek’s Pedersen.

It features two ascents of the short, but sharp climb of the Côte de la Tour in Bellegarde, which was the finish point last year. The finale is a little different from 12 months ago, but is still uphill and will still suit punchy sprinters, like Pedersen and Danish compatriot Cort.

Stage 2 comprises three loops on three sides of the town of Alès. Beginning in Saint-Christol-lèz-Alès, there are three second-category climbs on the route, the last of them up to the finish in Rousson running for a kilometer at 10 percent, which should provide an interesting match-up between the punchy climbers in the field, including Carapaz, Cort once again and UAE’s Diego Ulissi.

Stage 3 is based on the race’s hometown of Bessèges and named in tribute to Raymond Poulidor, who raced the first edition in 1971 and came every year afterward until his death in 2019.

It’s the most undulating day of the event and was crucial in deciding the overall verdict last year. Wellens was part of a 15-strong group that went clear on the climbs coming into the finish and broke away on the final descent to take the race lead with what proved enough of a gap to hold off his rivals in the concluding TT.

Although the climbs are different, the stage could well unfold in a similar fashion. There is a first- and then two second-category climbs in the opening half. With 20km remaining, the second-category Col des Brousses should reveal the strongest climbers. Eight kilometers later, the uncategorized Col de Trélis offers a potential springboard for victory, with 10 mostly downhill kilometers left back into Bessèges.

Ineos’s Ganna took the first of back-to-back wins on stage four last year, but the summit finish on Mont Bouquet makes a repeat of that scenario unlikely for the Italian time trial specialist.

It gets underway in Saint-Hilaire-de-Brethmas, crossing a third-category and then a second-category ascent as it heads for the finale above Brouzet-lès-Alès.

Averaging just a shade under 10 percent for 4.6km, Mont Bouquet is a tough test. There’s a kilometer-long stretch at 13 percent where the likes of Carapaz, Champoussin, and Johannessen should thrive, and plenty more steep pitches besides.

Like last year, Bessèges concludes with a 10.6km time trial that starts in the center of Alès, runs along both banks of the River Gardon, then climbs to the hermitage that overlooks the town, the final two kilometers rising at an average of 7 percent. Ganna clocked a time of 15 minutes dead to win here in 2021, 10 seconds ahead of Frenchman Benjamin Thomas.

52nd Etoile de Bessèges-Tour du Gard:

Stage 1: Bellegarde—Bellegarde, 160km
Stage 2: Saint-Christol-lèz-Alès to Rousson, 156km
Stage 3: Bessèges—Bessèges, 155km
Stage 4: Saint-Hilaire-de-Brethmas to Mont Bouquet
Stage 5: Alès, 10.6km (ITT)